Organic Produce and the Validity of Organic Food Studies
If your kid goes to Stanford University, you no doubt proudly sport the bumper sticker on your SUV; after all, the name "Stanford" carries a lot of panache. The school is considered a place where the intellectually elite congregate to deduce brilliant things. But this week, when researchers at Stanford went to the press with the conclusion that organic food isn't really any better than conventional food, they cast doubt on just how smart they are at Stanford after all.1
The researchers reviewed 237 food studies before achieving their "ah-ha" moment. Of those food studies, 223 examined the levels of nutrients and contaminants in organic food versus conventional products. The other 17 studies followed populations on organic produce versus conventional diets. The studies ranged in length from two days to two years.
The chief finding put forth by the Stanford team was that organics offer no nutritional edge over conventional foods. In other words, the nutrients in an organic peach equal the nutrients in a conventional peach from Chile. Plus, organic products are equally vulnerable to bacterial infection from sources like E. coli, the scientists found. These factors led the team to conclude that organic products offer no real advantage, plus they cost a whole lot more.
"When we began this project," said study director Dr. Dena Bravata, "we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food. I think we were definitely surprised…There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.2"
"Isn't much difference?" First, there's the fact that only seven percent of the organic produce had detectable traces of pesticide present, compared to 38 percent of the conventional produce. Since all the produce maintained pesticide levels beneath the "allowable" standards, the scientists dismissed this fact, as well as the finding that kids on organic diets showed lower levels of pesticides in their urine compared to kids eating conventional diets. In addition, organic fruits and vegetables also showed higher levels of phosphorous and phenols. And the organic meats and dairy products tested contained far lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But apparently, the researchers decided that none of these things matter.
Meanwhile, the AgriMarketing folks celebrated the news, letting folks know that they can now avoid buying organic and spend their cash on something more fun, like GMO potato chips. On the website,Agribusiness.com, there's a press release from the Heartland Institute, the same group that disputed findings linking secondhand smoke to health problems. "…the dirty little secret harbored by organic activists [is] that organic crops are not tested before they are certified. With this in mind, it's really not surprising that the highly bureaucratic organic industry is finally getting its comeuppance in this Stanford study," says the press release.3
Actually, the press release does make one good point, which is that much of the produce with USDA approval is of questionable quality as it comes from countries with lax regulations. There's also the fact, not mentioned in the release, that much of the so-called organic produce grown in the US resides under the umbrella of huge food and agricultural conglomerates. This means that much of the organic produce to hit the shelves actually comes from large farming conglomerates making do on depleted soil, using questionable methods.
What's more, the USDA designation is so flawed that it actually allows for at least five percent synthetic or non-organic components, plus a certain level of pesticide residue, and testing for pesticides is very loosely applied on organics. In other words, USDA organics aren't necessarily purely organic, which would account for some of the discrepancies found in the study. Sadly, the USDA stamp of approval doesn't ensure the highest quality nor safest organic designation, which is why you're far better off buying from a local organic farmer who you know, or growing your own if at all possible.
- In order to satisfy the lobbying of large agricultural conglomerates, the USDA has dumbed down the definition of organic
- So that it is based on toxicity, with no consideration of nutritional value.
- Even at that, the USDA allows for the use of non-organic components and certain levels of pesticide residues.
- There are no requirements for making sure that nutrients are actually put back in the soil so that they can make their way back into the plant. As Jon Barron has said, "If there's no selenium in the soil, there can't be any in the produce grown in that soil." And that holds true for all the other minerals as well.
- The study looked at only a limited number of nutrients such as vitamins A and C and omega-3 fatty acids. Had the scientists looked for other nutrients, they might well have found them even in the dumbed-down organics.
- It ignored the studies most favorable to organic produce
- For example, the Human Nutrition Research Center, the most comprehensive study to date, found that organic foods are indeed higher in vitamin C, antioxidants, polyphenols 60 to 80% of the time, and vitamin A and protein are higher 50% of the time when compared to conventional foods.4
- In that sense, it was merely a reaffirmation of previous food studies such as theBritish Foods Standards Agency study and the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry study that have already been exposed as seriously flawed. Just because you re-cite a flawed study doesn't make it any less flawed.
- And even at that, the flawed organic produce
- Tested higher in many nutrients
- And lower in pesticide levels
- And the conclusion was -- astoundingly -- no benefit?
But all this, though significant, is beside the chief point. That point is that the study directors failed to consider the health impact of consuming a cocktail of pesticides from conventionally grown produce over the long-term. Most of us who choose organic do so primarily to avoid the pesticides, not to get more vitamin C from the fruit. True, organic fruits and vegetables grown in good soil on a small farm may well have higher nutrient content than conventional produce grown by commercial methods; it will also likely have higher nutrient content than organic produce grown by large-scale farming methods, too, in spite of what the study concluded. This certainly matters -- a lot -- although the research failed to consider this fact.
But even more to the point, the longest of the food studies included in the meta-analysis went for only two years, hardly long enough to measure the impact of daily consumption of fruits and vegetables with measurably higher levels of toxins consumed day in and day out for several decades. One might wonder why the study report apparently tried to minimize the significance of the higher pesticide content in the conventional produce. Also, why did it minimize the higher phenol content in the organics, among other advantages found?
Add to that question the fact that, according to research scientist Chuck Benbrook of Washington State University, the methods used to assess pesticide content of the conventional produce in the study were deceptive and just plain wrong.5 He says, had the study been done correctly it would have found, "an overall 81% lower risk or incidence of one or more pesticide residues in the organic samples compared to the conventional samples." Furthermore, Benbrook says the study "didn't distinguish between a single pesticide trace and multiple traces; or between light traces and heavier traces." In other words, the conventionally grown produce contained far more pesticide content than the organic and far, far more than indicated, if Benbrook is right.
Why would the study authors underestimate pesticide content in the conventional produce? Guess? According to an expose in InfoWars, one of the study authors has unsavory ties to industry.6Stanford University is one of the nation's biggest recipients of secret donations from Monsanto, Cargill, and other agribusiness entities, says the expose. And, it turns out, co-author of the study Dr. Ingram Olkin has known ties to the tobacco industry including a financial tie to Philip Morris. Ingram has been involved in research downplaying the harmful effects of tobacco.
So if the study makes you think that it's fine, after all, to choose those super-cheap strawberries grown conventionally, just remember back when some researchers still supported the safety of smoking. Think about how some of the same folks are lurking in the background in the studies assuring you that organics make no difference to your health at all. Then think about what produce you want to buy the next time you go to the store.
1 Chang, Kenneth. "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce." 3 September 2012. New York Times. 7 September 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/science/earth/study-questions-advantages-of-organic-meat-and-produce.html?_r=2>
2 Brandt, Michelle. "Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, Stanford study finds." 3 September 2012. Stanford School of Medicine. 7 September 2012. <http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html>
3 "Stanford University Study Challenges Benefits of Organic Food and Industry Claims." 6 September 2012. AgriMarketing. 7 September 2012. <http://www.agrimarketing.com/s/77485>
4 K. Brandta, C. Leifertb, R. Sandersonc & C. J. Seala. "Agroecosystem Management and Nutritional Quality of Plant Foods: The Case of Organic Fruits and Vegetables." Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. Volume 30, Issue 1-2, 2011 pages 177-197. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07352689.2011.554417#preview>
5 Philpott, Tom. "5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short." 5 August 2012. Mother Jones.7 August 2012. < http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/09/five-ways-stanford-study-underestimates-organic-food>
6 Adams, Mike and Gucciardi, Anthony. "Busted: Coauthor of Flawed Stanford Organic Study Has Deep Ties to Big Tobacco's Anti-Science Propoganda." 7 September 2012.http://www.infowars.com/busted-co-author-of-flawed-stanford-organic-study-has-deep-ties-to-big-tobaccos-anti-science-propaganda/